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On April 3, the Texas Department of Banking issued a supervisory memorandum on the regulatory treatment of virtual currencies under the Texas Money Services Act. The memorandum states that money transmission licensing determinations regarding transactions with decentralized virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, referred to by the Banking Department as cryptocurrencies, turn on whether cryptocurrencies should be considered "money or monetary value" under the Money Services Act. The memorandum concludes that cryptocurrencies currently cannot be considered “money or monetary value” because they are not currencies as that word is defined in the Money Services Act, and a unit of cryptocurrency is not a claim under the Act. However, when a cryptocurrency transaction includes sovereign currency, it may constitute money transmission depending on how the sovereign currency is handled. The memorandum provides examples of common types of transactions involving cryptocurrencies and whether they would constitute money transmission subject to state licensing requirements. For example, the Department states that exchanging cryptocurrency for sovereign currency through a third party exchanger is generally money transmission, and that exchange of cryptocurrency for sovereign currency through an automated machine is usually but not always money transmission. The Department advises that cryptocurrency businesses conducting money transmission must comply with state licensing requirements. The Department further advises that (i) a money transmitter that conducts virtual currency transactions is subject to a $500,000 minimum net worth requirement; (ii) a license holder may not include virtual currency assets in calculations for its permissible investments; and (iii) license applicants who handle virtual currencies in the course of their money transmission activities must submit a current third party security audit of their relevant computer systems.
On March 26, the California Department of Business Oversight issued a request for comments on proposed changes to regulations impacting money transmitters. The Department is required to amend outdated regulations that correspond to the repealed Payment Instruments Law, and establish new regulations to implement the Money Transmission Act. Specifically, the regulations under consideration include amendments to definitions, exemptions from the Money Transmission Act, license application requirements, administrative standards and procedures relating to an application for a license, tangible shareholders’ equity, consumer disclosures, and eligible securities. Comments on the proposal are due by April 26, 2014.
Recently, the state of Washington enacted SB 6134, which amends numerous provisions related to the supervision of non-depository institutions. The bill clarifies the statute of limitations applicable to certain violations by non-depository institutions by providing that enforcement actions for violations of the Escrow Act, the Mortgage Broker Practices Act, the Uniform Money Services Act (UMSA), the Consumer Loan Act, and the Check Cashers and Check Sellers Act (CCSA) are subject to a five-year statute of limitations. In addition, the bill provides that licensees under the CCSA and the UMSA that conduct business in multiple states and register through the NMLS must submit call reports to the Department of Financial Institutions. The changes take effect June 12, 2014.
FinCEN Releases Additional Guidance Related To Virtual Currency Mining, Software, And Investment Activity
On January 30, FinCEN issued two rulings related to virtual currency mining and virtual currency software development and investment activity. The guidance clarifies FinCEN’s previous convertible virtual currency guidance. In FIN-2014-R001, FinCEN explains that miners of Bitcoins, whether individuals or corporations, who are engaging in mining solely for the miner’s own personal purpose are “users” of virtual currency and not MSBs under FinCEN’s previous guidance. FinCEN found this to be the case even if the miner from time to time must convert the mined Bitcoins into real currency or another convertible virtual currency so long as the conversion is solely for the miner’s own purposes and not as a business service performed for the benefit of another. In FIN-2014-R002, FinCEN states that a company that develops its own software to purchase virtual currency for its own account and to resell the virtual currency at the company’s own discretion and based on the company’s own investment decisions also is not an MSB under FinCEN’s prior guidance.
This week, New York State Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky presided over a two-day hearing regarding emerging virtual currencies and the appropriate role of regulation. The hearing was the next step in an inquiry announced last August, and was held as the NY DFS considers developing a state license specific to virtual currency that would subject operators to state oversight. The panels featured the views of private investors, virtual currency firms, regulatory experts, and law enforcement officials. From our view inside the room, the most prominent, theme to emerge is that regulators will need to strike a balance between protecting the public interest—both from a consumer protection standpoint and with regard to the potential for criminal activity—while allowing emerging virtual currency technologies to develop, evolve, and thrive.
Panelists agreed that bringing virtual currency activity into a regulatory framework is necessary, particularly with regard to ensure AML compliance. However, they added that recent criminal AML enforcement actions against virtual currency market participants suggested existing laws may be sufficient to meet the challenge. In general, they urged the NY DFS to apply existing laws and requirements and to otherwise “only regulate at the edges.” One panelist suggested implementing any new rules in tiered manner, allowing smaller players an “onramp” to compliance. All panelists stressed the potential economic benefits to allowing robust virtual currency markets to evolve domestically, and some panelists touted the potential broader positive impacts on ecommerce and the potential to reach individuals not served by the traditional banking sector.
Though cognizant of the potential economic benefits of allowing virtual currencies to take hold, NY DFS expressed concerns about too loose a regulatory structure, particularly with regard to the perceived risks of virtual currency to more easily facilitate money laundering and related illicit activity. In an interview between panels Mr. Lawsky stated: “It’s feeling more like little tweaks around the edges are not enough.” Federal and state law enforcement officials echoed those concerns. While they vowed to use existing laws to pursue wrongdoers, Deputy U.S. Attorney Richard Zabel and New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., challenged the assertion that enforcement of existing laws is sufficient to meet the challenges posed by virtual currencies.
Click here for links to written testimony and other hearing materials.
The hearing coincided with other events focused on virtual currency, including one co-hosted by BuckleySandler and Wells Fargo. Other industry experts discussed the rapidly emerging field of virtual currency. Panelists weighed-in on market trends, investment opportunities, compliance imperatives, and interoperability with traditional fiat currencies. Particular attention focused on regulatory compliance considerations, risk management, and policy frameworks.
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For additional information about the events above, or if you have questions about virtual currencies and other emerging financial services technologies, please contact any of the lawyers in our E-Commerce or Anti-Money Laundering practice areas, or any other BuckleySandler attorney with whom you have consulted in the past.
On January 23, the CFPB proposed a rule that would allow the agency to supervise nonbank “larger participants” in the international money transfer market. The proposed rule defines “larger participant” to include any entity that provides one million or more international money transfers annually, which the CFPB estimates will extend oversight to roughly 25 of the largest providers in the market. Providers that do not meet the million-transfer threshold may still be subject to the CFPB’s supervisory authority if the Bureau has reasonable cause to determine they pose risk to consumers. Although the CFPB proposes to use aggregate annual international money transfers as the criterion for establishing which entities are “larger participants” of the international money transfer market, the CFPB also considered and has requested comment on use of annual receipts from international money transfers and annual transmitted dollar volume as potential alternatives.
The CFPB suggests that examinations of such providers will focus on compliance with the Remittance Rule—particularly with respect to new requirements addressing disclosures, cancellation options, and error corrections—and that the agency will “coordinate [examinations] with appropriate State regulatory authorities.” The CFPB released examination procedures for use in assessing compliance with the remittance transfer requirements last year.
Dodd-Frank granted the CFPB authority to supervise “larger participants” in the consumer financial space, as defined by rule. The agency has already finalized similar rules covering “larger participants” in student loan servicing, debt collection, and consumer reporting markets. The proposal, if finalized, would be the fourth larger-participant rule adopted by the CFPB.
A CFPB factsheet on the proposal is available here. The CFPB will accept comments for 60 days from publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register.
On November 14, New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky issued a notice that the DFS intends to hold a public hearing on virtual currency regulation in New York City “in the coming months.” The hearing will focus on the interconnection between money transmission regulations and virtual currencies. Additionally, the hearing is expected to consider the need for and feasibility of a licensing regime specific to virtual currency transactions and activities (i.e. a “BitLicense”), which would include anti-money laundering and consumer protection requirements for licensed entities. The notice makes clear that no decisions on licensing or other regulation of virtual currencies has been made. Rather the hearing and license notice is part of the agency’s broader inquiry launched in August into the need for a regulatory framework specific to virtual currencies. With regard to potential licensing, the DFS would like stakeholders to consider: (i) what, if any, specific types of virtual currency transactions and activities should require a BitLicense; (ii) whether entities that are issued a BitLicense should be required to follow specifically tailored anti-money laundering or consumer protection guidelines; and (iii) whether entities that are issued a BitLicense should be required to follow specifically tailored regulatory examination requirements.
On October 22, the CFPB released the procedures its examiners will use in assessing financial institutions’ compliance with the remittance transfer requirements of Regulation E. Amendments to those regulations, finalized by the CFPB earlier this year, are set to take effect October 28, 2013. In general, the rule requires remittance transfer providers that offer remittances as part of their “normal course of business” to: (i) provide written pre-payment disclosures of the exchange rates and fees associated with a transfer of funds as well as the amount of funds the recipient will receive; and (ii) investigate consumer disputes and remedy errors. The rule does not apply to financial institutions that consistently provide 100 or fewer remittance transfers each year, or to transactions under $15.
The new examination procedures detail the specific objectives examiners should pursue as part of the examination, including to: (i) assess the quality of the regulated entity’s compliance risk management systems with respect to its remittance transfer business; (ii) identify acts or practices relating to remittance transfers that materially increase the risk of violations of federal consumer financial law and associated harm to consumers; (iii) gather facts that help to determine whether a supervised entity engages in acts or practices that are likely to violate federal consumer financial law; and (iv) determine whether a violation of a federal consumer financial law has occurred and, if so, whether further supervisory or enforcement actions are appropriate. In doing so, CFPB examiners will look not only at potential risks related to the remittance regulations, but also outside the remittance rule to assess “other risks to consumers,” including potential unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act privacy violations. Finally, consistent with other examination procedures published by the CFPB, the examiners are instructed to conduct both a management- and policy-level review as well as a transaction-level review to inform the stated examination objectives.
Also on October 22, the CFPB announced a new tool designed to make it easier for the public to navigate the regulations subject to CFPB oversight. To start, the new eRegulations tool includes only Regulation E, which implements the Electronic Fund Transfer Act and includes the remittance requirements discussed above. Noting that federal regulations can be difficult to navigate, the CFPB redesigned the electronic presentation of its regulations, including by (i) defining key terms throughout, (ii) providing official interpretations throughout, (iii) linking certain sections of the “Federal Register preambles” to help explain the background of a particular paragraph, and (iv) providing the ability to see previous, current, and future versions. The CFPB notes that the tool is a work in progress and that suggestions from the public are welcome. Further, the CFPB encourages other agencies, developers, or groups to use and adapt the system.
On September 4, the FTC’s Bureau of Competition issued an advisory opinion responding to a national money transmitters’ trade association inquiry about its planned information exchange regarding terminated U.S. money transmitter agents. According to the opinion, (i) the database will contain information regarding former U.S. sending and receiving agents whose contractual relationships were terminated due to failure to comply with federal and/or state law, or money transmitter contract terms or policies, (ii) exchange membership will be open to all licensed non-bank money transmitters, and (iii) participation in the information exchange will be voluntary, and each member of the information exchange will retain the right to decide unilaterally whether to appoint an agent that has been terminated by another exchange member. The FTC staff determined that the program (i) appears unlikely to harm competition, (ii) will contain several safeguards to lessen the risk of harm to competition and consumers, such as the appointment of a third-party vendor to maintain and secure the information exchange database, and (iii) is likely to improve the money transmitters’ ability to comply with federal and state laws designed to prevent money laundering, terrorist financing, and other criminal behavior, and enhance consumer welfare by preventing the appointment of fraudulent or criminal money transmitter agents.
CFPB Releases Consumer Reporting and Money Transfer Complaints, Expands Complaint Database Functionality
On May 31, the CFPB published for the first time consumer complaints about credit reporting, which the CFPB began accepting in October 2012, and money transfer complaints, which it began accepting in April 2013. The CFPB also announced that all complaints in its consumer complaint database now include a field for the state from which the complaint was filed. That field allows the CFPB to report, for example, that the top states for per capita mortgage complaints are (i) New Hampshire, (ii) Maryland, (iii) the District of Columbia, (iv) Georgia, and (v) Florida.